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Did you know Ravel’s Bolero was originally called Fandango? And it was written as a ballet commissioned by Ida Rubinstein, a dancer with the Ballets Russes, actor, patron, producer, nurse and apparently one-time nun.
Her colourful story is full of historical nuggets and telling it is clearly a passion project for the woman who plays her, Naomi Sorkin, who bears some resemblance to Rubinstein and shares her Russian Jewish roots. Sorkin is a woman with the unmistakable bearing of a former ballerina and has her own eventful career, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in the late 60s/early 70s, later performing with Lindsay Kemp and William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt.
Sorkin’s Rubinstein comes in flowing silks and tumbling hair, speaking in italics with a diva’s dramatic gesture. She’s like the rich eccentric widow-type from an Agatha Christie, with an extravagant accent and a fortune teller’s love for voluminous scarves. But there’s an attempt to find some vulnerability behind her stagey self-confidence.
Written and directed by Christian Holder, the play evokes Rubinstein’s early 20th-century circle of artists and lovers through a simple narrative device: telling her life story to a journalist (Max Wilson). There’s something baldly expositional about that, but we always know where we are, learning of Rubinstein’s work with Sarah Bernhardt, and the catty comments of Sergei Diaghilev, likening Rubinstein’s company to a bad smell and dissing her dance technique – it’s true she triumphed on striking beauty and force of personality over balletic skill – or her famous Salomé, scandalously revealing a breast on stage “because the truth of the mise en scène demanded it!”
She relives her performances as Zobeide in Mikhail Fokine’s Scheherazade, dancing with Nijinsky, and Sorkin vividly conjures the heat and passion and intensity of the moment on stage in a way that could only be drawn from a dancer’s experience.
This is a fringe show, with accents occasionally going astray, but the production is creative with limited means. And there’s a surprising extra layer, looking at the impact of the two world wars and how the stage icon touched less famous lives, which provides a meaningful counterpoint to Rubinstein’s melodrama.
At the Playground theatre, London, until 16 October